Gaming Achievements in the Modern Era

I remember long weekends in ‘96 at my neighbor’s house, swapping turns comandeering the three-pronged monstrosity to collect stars in Super Mario 64. The objective of this seminal 3D platforming game was to move throughout the main hub world, slowly unlocking its connected stages to finally face off against the infamous villain. To proceed to new stages in the hub world, you had to collect Power Stars; once you collected 70 stars, you could access this final arena. There were, however, more than 70 stars available to find and collect in the game (almost twice as many at 120 total). If you wanted to be a game completionist, you did things like spend your entire summer vacation finding and collecting all 120 of those stars. Collecting all of them was considered an achievement, but Nintendo didn’t beat you over the head with a victory badge for it — you proudly internalized that achievement on your own, maybe sharing it with friends, and toasting with a cup of Tang). You tried collecting all those extra stars because it was fun; it was a goal outside of the main game that kept you extending its $60 value.

Gamers back then did all kinds of crazy things to prove their prowess. Gaming magazines like GamePro and EGM featured VHS tapes people had sent showcasing ludicrous run-throughs of Goldeneye or verifying high scores across a variety of score-based games (I mean just look at the laundry list of score submission requirements for Crazy Taxi 2 back in 2001). Gamers took pride in these kinds of achievements. An accomplished method that lets you bend the defined set of rules in a videogame’s self-contained environment is something you can take pride in as a personal or competitive accomplishment. And sure, people like to brag.

This trackable, competitive spirit was first enabled with game scoring measureability in Midway's Sea Wolf back in 1976:

The player would attempt to reach a pre-determined high score within an allotted time period, after which they would win bonus playing time, since it was not possible to save the top score.

Scoring systems were ubiquitous in many early games thereafter — notably Space Invaders — and even transcended to the first console iteration of Super Mario Bros. (though to this day I still have no idea how that score is calculated). Coin-op arcades thrived off the competitiveness of strangers — pinball machines, fighting games, racing games. Tracking your high score and your competition across leaderboards was worth the jaunt alone to an arcade (or so I’m envisioning back in the 1980s, when I was but a wee little boy… Megatouch’s Erotic Photo Hunt at Webster's Pub in Chicago is my modern equivalent from which to draw comparison).

But then something happened with this last generation of consoles: Today, you’ll find nearly every videogame platform require its games to feature something called “achievements” or “trophies” to back-pat its players through the process of merely progressing in-game. This has become a travesty of what was once sacred ground. Sure, high scores and leadership tracking still largely exist across all kinds of games, but the emergence of task-specific achievement systems has cast a dark shadow on gameplay immersion and, more severely, how players behave with their games.

The Nature of Achievements

Let’s not get things confused before I go down the path of this criticism. High scores are one thing; achievements and trophies are another monstrosity entirely. Here’s how each of the main platforms handles these kinds of things:

  • Steam Achievements: “Various individual player statistics will be tracked by Steam while you play games, such as the amount of time you have spent playing. Stats are also collected for individual games like Team Fortress 2, Portal and Half-Life 2: Episode Two. You can find achievements under the stats for your games as well.”
  • Xbox Gamerscore/achievements: “ Achievements system that measures the number of Achievement points accumulated by a user with a LIVE profile. These Achievement points are awarded for the completion of game-specific challenges, such as beating a level or amassing a specified number of wins against other players in online matches.”
  • Playstation Trophies: “Trophies are in-game rewards that recognize substantial gaming accomplishments made while playing your favorite games.”
  • iOS Game Center Achievements: “An achievement represents a quantitative goal that the player can accomplish in your game. As the local player plays your game, he or she makes progress towards completing the achievement. When the player meets or exceeds the goal, the achievement is considered earned, and the player is rewarded. Your game defines the goal and the game mechanics that describe how a player earns the achievement.”

It should also be noted that Steam recently evolved their achievements feature to include Steam Trading Cards — digital cards earned for doing arbitrary things like playing Portal 2 for a period of an hour that, once acquired, can then be traded or sold via the Steam platform. I think I made a solid $7 in Steam credit for playing Portal 2 and Civilization V for a period of a couple hours. It's hard to understand who paid money for five bio cards and a few wallpapers, but at least Shadowrun Returns was cheaper.

So with all these methods of delivering feedback to players on their mundane accomplishments in-game, what, exactly, is the point? How do in-game notifications motivate a player? Does the addition of notification-driven achievements change or manipulate the player’s behavior more so than simply beating the game, achieving a high score, or accomplishing a difficult challenge?

There are divisive opinions on the role and functionality of achievements in modern gaming. IGN’s harles Onyett points out that “despite the fact that all you're doing is bumping up a number total that you can show off to your friends, the fact that getting Achievements can actually cause you to play games you normally wouldn't or behave in different ways – sometime to the detriment of those around you – drives these kind of meta-reward mechanics further into the core of what we have come to think of the modern gaming experience.” His co-conspirer, Greg Miller, has other a rather different perspective: “Achievement and Trophies are pointless. These are meaningless numbers and digital trinkets that give us nothing, cost us hours of our lives, and might not even carry over to the next wave of consoles.”

An example? Let’s take an Xbox game, Guitar Hero III, and one its its lousiest achievements: Buy a Guitar Already, worth 15 Gamer Points.1 If you didn’t already know, Guitar Hero was a popular series of games that were packaged with musical instruments that connected into the game environment so that multiple players could karaoke songs. Strangely enough, this particular achievement requires you to the play the game for a period of time without the guitar, a presumably infuriating experience. As GameSpy points out, “if you're that good with your hands you could have spent those last few hours jerking off and still achieved more. You'd be much more honest with yourself, your role in life, and exactly how much you contribute to society.” Does this achievement make you enjoy the game or challenge you any more than actually pulling off a song? No, it doesn’t. But it influences your behavior to do stupid shit to crank up your Gamerscore.

The Importance of Immersion

My critique isn’t squarely aimed at discrediting the intent behind achievement systems, but rather their delivery. While high scores, speed runs, and in-game collectables are something to strive for as an end-goal, achievement tasks and alerts can be a deviation from those goals, and at their worst, a jarring distraction. Remember VH1’s pop-up music video series? If you couldn’t stand that constant vitriol of interruptions bombarding you every few seconds, why would you possibly tolerate modern videogames’ achievement notifications? Gameplay immersion is an absolutely critical part of the experience, so why do certain game developers dare to interrupt this magical spell cast on the gamer? I sink into a state of melancholia if I suffered through films with alerts telling me that I'd achieved “75% completion of watching film.”

I clap developers on the back like Naughty Dog who avoid beating players over the head with Playstation Trophies. Their recent release, The Last of Us, eschews micro-goal pedantry. I can’t imagine moving through a tense sequence only to be pulled out of it by an alert proclaiming I dispatched a difficult in-game enemy. If I feel inclined, I can quietly internalize that victory and move on. The art of suspense and environmental design is an incredible victory for The Last of Us — notifications have no place here. And the same goes for many other games of the same caliber and ambition.

When I was talking to my brother for the Whalenought Studios interview, he mentioned the annoyance in playing the much-lauded Bethesda game, Fallout 3:

After a few hours of being stuck underground in tight corridors, I finally open the iconic vault door to a beautifully rendered landscape, mountains and wasteland as far as the computer can render. Then it happens, a sight to behold in this fantastically and intricately designed moment, and the Xbox UI vomits across my screen: ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: YOU LEFT THE VAULT. Maybe they thought I was blinded by the mere sight of the outdoors.

Or maybe they thought every fucking new scene you see needs some kind of indication that hey, congratulations, it looks like you progressed a little bit farther in the game.

Game achievements and trophies also can damage the attitude and behavior of gamers, further removing them from the experience of the game (unless, of course, the experience is all about chasing numbers, like the idiotic Candy Crush). Cameron Gidari has a great write-up on this. Speaking about finding that fourth bottle in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time:

I never got the fourth bottle in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the one you earn by riding around Hyrule Field shooting big Poes with arrows from horseback. The big Poes would always disappear too quickly, and my aim was never very good, so I left it alone and went along my way. I already had three bottles anyways, why did I need another one? Back before I discovered achievements, I played games because I liked them. I didn’t care that I had left certain games half-finished, or didn’t get X number of headshots with a certain weapon. If a game was fun, I played it. If it wasn’t, I stopped. So simple.

Gaming culture, or at the very worst, casual gaming culture, shouldn't turn players into zombie completionists. We shouldn't be tapping our fingers into bloody messes over achieving Tee Hee Two in Jetpack Joyride or flushing 250+ hours of your life into the Secret Achievement in Lost Planet 2. It's like being forced to watch one television show, start another midway through, and then another, and another until you haven't completed any of them but they're all nagging you to Resume on Netflix.

My plea: Put an end to this madness and offer a “deactive Achievements & Alerts” in every platform's settings. Please.

  1. With the Xbox system, every achievement you earn influences your overall Gamerscore that is shown to other members of the platform’s online community; the Gamerscore itself is a measurement of the number of achievement points accumulated by a player.  

The Captains of Whalenought Studios

The logo fades in: a triptych of whales hovering above a dark sea, each wielding a formidable chaingun on their dorsal fins. This ominous logo represents Whalenought Studios, my brother and sister-in-law's game company. Married above the riff-raff of Hubbard street in downtown Chicago this past May, the captains of Whalenought -- Joe and Hannah Williams -- currently work from the comforts of their newly rented space in the quieter escape of the Rogers Park neighborhood (in Chicago). The duo have been working on a diverse catalog of apps for over a year now, a few of which are already in the App Store. If their current projects are any indication, upcoming apps from the studio should be pioneering champions of well-established game genres, pushing forward a seriousness that few mobile app developers exhibit.

Whalenough Studios' first release was an interactive children's ebook, Snake Likes to Take. Available as a universal app for both iPhone and iPad, the book challenges children to drag and drop specifically shaped objects that align with a hungry Snake's appetite. I smugly blew through the book's puzzles as a 28-year child.

Their sophomore effort was incarnated in a hardcore "orbital" platforming game called Bridge to the Moon. Released earlier this summer, Bridge to the Moon meets at the intersection of a 2D Mario Galaxy, the animated action of Metal Slug, and the gritty art direction of Metroid. Not quite a traditional platformer, Bridge to the Moon manages to push the familiar 2D platformer gameplay into a niche space all its own.

Upcoming games include a throwback to ARPGs from the 90s and a darkly humorous take on tower defense games (its main defensive structure is a human-powered poop chute).

The duo were kind enough to take some time out of their busy days for an interview to talk about their next, most ambition game yet, Isle of Bxnes, as well as volley opinions on the current state of mobile gaming, and plans for the future.

PW: Whalenought Studios is focused on platformers (of the orbital kind) and ARPG-oriented games with pixel art and mostly isometric views. Why did you pursue this aesthetic and direction for your current game, Isle of Bxnes -- had you explored any other ideas first, or did it come about all at once?

WHALENOUGHT: Animation is on a very high pedestal for us though. We want our worlds to live and breathe in their native pixel world, not have clip art flow around the screen. Pixel art has a timeless appeal that not a lot of other mediums in the industry can say aged as well, and we'd like people to get a refreshing feel of knowing they are playing a video game that could have been from any era.

Being a two-person team means we need to use the resources and knowledge we are already good at, which is pixel art and vector art. Vector art has a tendency to look like clip art for 90% of it's existence until it becomes masterfully polished. Some developers are okay with that, especially those who don't plan on animating art. If you're decent at graphic design and can draw something, then just tween and interpolate it across the screen without animation and you've joined the ranks of almost all 2D physics games.

The isometric perspective is something we're both just really fond of as well, especially for RPGs. Something feels like they just belong in that world - add an adventuring party in a tavern with classic fantasy tavern music and it feels just right. We found a niche missing from the mobile world, which was a lack of 1998-inspired RPGs and action RPGs (ARPGs), something I've always wanted to see a lot more of in general - but especially in mobile.

PW: There has definitely been a dearth of CRPGs and ARPGs on mobile for serious gamers nostalgic for the past. It was great to finally see the Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition come to iOS -- it's a platform that long needed that kind of game to prove the devices suitable for long-form play. And I think we both agree that the resurgance in pixel art across games has been a great thing for indie developers -- a lot of emotion can be conveyed with simpler building blocks now that artists have mastered the form (the recent release, A Ride in the Mountains, is a great example of that -- its fantastically animated horse communicates strideful intensity and weight with minimal animation).

Wanted to talk to you a bit about how you plan and design levels. In Bridge to the Moon, the levels are efficiently mapped, but at first blush, appear dense and complex. How do you go about planning and executing?

WHALENOUGHT: Having Baldur's Gate to play on mobile was an amazing feat, I hope there are more to come from Beamdog. I heard they had some licensing issues with Atari though, I assume they'll come to some agreement if they haven't already.

The levels in Bridge to the Moon were designed for the play mechanics at hand: running around circles and having ample room to guide and dodge missiles. A few early levels just feature a few enemies and lots of breakable walls, while later ones feature tons of enemies and few walls. Game design wise, that made it an easy progression for the difficulty and learning curve.

Isle of Bxnes, and our future planned projects, are using a completely different setup for game design and levels. A lot of how we're planning the levels is dependent on what our current engine can handle. We're switching to Corona Labs after completing Isle of Bxnes to make a larger open ended world possible.

Isle of Bxnes levels fit into nicely compacted islands, which was a size limitation (on mobile and our engine) which greatly influenced our game design. Initial planning was one fairly sizable island where you moved around freely, every level attached to the same map and grid. Having to reduce the size of the levels, we kept all the main elements of the game but added the tribe's raft to get the player from island to island. It makes the player feel a little more involved with their tribe, who is kind of the main character of the game, so that was a great addition.

By making the flow of the gameplay move from raft to island (maybe to cave or second tier of a mountain or dungeon within that island level) and back to raft, we were able to make the islands much more full of life by having the islands more dense with enemies, puzzles, or quests. The experience of traversing a large, maybe more desolate area, was traded for a more action-packed, segmented experience, so good and bad came with that.

Designing is done with lots of sketching and coming up with options for what's on each island. We have a wall full of jotted down levels and level events waiting to find a place. Actually creating the levels is done using a kind of tiling hybrid method - the base of the backgrounds are put together with tiles and then we add animated and still objects on top of them. Performance wise it's bittersweet; we have options for more variety, as we're not actually constrained to a tiling grid, but at the cost of performance and level size. It's an endless struggle working with mobile.

Each island has around three different variations: usually theming what enemies, boss battles, or events take place there. So for a given island, a player could either find giants camped out near their tents waiting to swarm, a hermit looking for boars to sacrifice, or an island post-battle littered with bodies, cannibals, and maggots crawling around. And a player will only see one version of that island during their current playthrough, so it's a comfortably controlled randomization for the player. Nothing is 'procedurally generated', so we can have nicely designed maps without it just being up to chance or an algorithm that they turn out decent. During raft travel you can get ambushed by exotically large sea-life or other tribes on rafts or canoes, so the raft also becomes a level.

We're almost done with all of the features in the game, so we're getting pretty hot and heavy into finishing more maps now.

PW: I'm curious to see the variety of environments now that I know there are going to be more than three main islands to explore. When I first saw the visual style and setting for Isle of Bxnes, I was reminded of Act III in Diablo 2 -- a notoriously brutal segment of the game with similarly maniacal enemies set in a deep, ancient jungle. What kinds of inspiration from other gaming environments, if any, helped inform the world you've been building?

WHALENOUGHT: Our game uses a lot of on-map objects and scenery like Diablo to make the world feel very lively and filled with objects to use for cover, or to run behind during fights. However, I think visually, because our game uses a tile-orientated style, it takes more inspiration from 2D Zelda games. We're making more maze-like dungeons and temples with some prehistoric puzzles that reflect a Zelda design.

To make the art style gritty, there aren't areas of flat colors like a lot of SNES games had. The pixel art is created in a way to give the effect of 3D textures in some areas, lots of subtle noise to make the area look as rich with texture as the characters are with their animations. Most importantly, the characters and trees are always moving and breathing to create the impression of a responsive world. Overall, we tried to replicate the '1998 RPG', the 3D models rendered in 2D in an isometric view, but instead used pixel art. Not hyper-stylized, and very textured and animated.

PW: I can absolutely back a "1998 CRPG" game -- Black Isle Studios stole all my summers in junior high and high school, and I'd sacrifice them again.

So with your current platformer, Bridge to the Moon, some critics have argued that the player is thrust into puzzle-like levels without guidance as to direction or gameplay mechanics. While it took me a few tries to comprehend what exactly to do, it never hampered my experience -- do you think that the simplification of games, especially on mobile, has warped gamers' expectations around the challenge of a game?

WHALENOUGHT: I think different games call for different amounts of hand-holding. The mobile market tends to not leave a lot up to the imagination of the player when starting out - developers are trying to capitalize on the mass market, which means a lot of casual gaming on the go.

I definitely don't think it has to be that way, though - I'd say the first 'level' or few minutes of a game tell the player exactly the kind of experience they are going to have, and that's just so paramount it's sort of a tragedy so many developers throw it away with a lame tutorial level or a hand holding session of exactly what to build or do. I personally love the mystery of discovering mechanics in a game. When I bought Witcher 2 when it first came out, there was a literal trial-by-fire by having your first enemies be full on soldiers and a dragon spewing fire everywhere. It was insane, and I thought it perfectly conveyed the super challenging game design.

There seems to be an unspoken rule about making mobile games hyper-accessible. I definitely can see the point of adding in more instructions for a player in Bridge to the Moon, even if it's just like a slideshow of the controls and gameplay before the first level. We chose not to for a reason, though, and we continue doing a very limited amount in Isle of Bxnes. I think we're making it more clear what's usable for the player so that we don't need anything telling them what to do. It's their adventure, let them make their discoveries on their own terms, with dignity.

PW: Speaking of hand-holding, any thoughts on ’achievements’ in the gaming industry, and why you decided against their use in your games so far? I can guess your answer with certainty, but that wouldn't be as fun.

WHALENOUGHT: I think they are a wonderful addition if you're the kind of person who needs validation from friends and family for clearing a map. One great experience I remember is emerging from the vault in Bethesda's Fallout 3 for the the first time. After a few hours of being stuck underground in tight corridors, I finally open the iconic vault door to a beautifully rendered landscape, mountains, and wasteland as far as the computer can render. Then it happens, a sight to behold in this fantastically and intricately designed moment, and the Xbox UI vomits across my screen: ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: YOU LEFT THE VAULT. Maybe they thought I was blinded by the mere sight of the outdoors.

I remember hearing somewhere that the consoles at least require some amount of achievement tiers or amount you can get, so that's on the console's end for making it part of a game-play experience, if one could call it that. There are of course two sides, and some games can definitely add market-oriented features like this and not necessarily break the flow or experience of the gameplay (puzzlers, for instance).

I refuse to include pop-up and social media achievements mostly because I'm under the impression that achievements and IAP (in-app purchases), especially in the mobile world, come from the same game-design philosophy that is unfortunately dominating the market: quick interest, quickly addicting, quick money. You know the games, the same ones you played years before the mobile market existed in Flash.

Achievements without visual bombardment are harmless enough, but I think that making the player read text to see if they did something important instead of graphically comprehending it is just terribly lazy design.

We are toying with the idea about making a certain character on your raft tell you all the legendary creatures they have heard about - and if you've destroyed any he could tell you when you want to talk to him. It would be an unobtrusive but interesting in-game feature, and it wouldn't break the immersion of traversing the world. I think Castlevania: Symphony of the Night did something similar where you could browse through a catalog of monsters that you had killed. That was a really fun feature and added depth to the game instead of an interruption.

PW: Great example with Bethesda's Fallout 3. Achievements annoyingly ruin gameplay immersion (and let's not excuse notifications in general, like when a buddy initiatives playing a game on Steam); these interruptions grate against expectations a lot of gamers from our generation have about how game experiences should be.

I remember all those cool bestiaries some games had that compiled when you discovered and killed monsters. You're right, pretty sure Castlevania had that. Your implementation of a character-driven bestiary in Isle of Bxnes sounds like a nice evolution of that.

You also seem to to be evolving some new concepts around post-death revival -- namely, the themes around leadership in a tribe and rearing new sons to take your place (essentially a riff on "respawns" and additional lives). How did that idea come about?

WHALENOUGHT: The bestiaries are great, we're currently developing a death screen which shows how many and which enemies you took down with you through your odyssey before dying, or how many you put to the club upon victory. I think it fits nicely as a constant reminder of your perils during smaller gameplay sessions for a more hardcore game where death and restart are commonplace.

The respawn feature came very early as a response to what kind of game we were developing. It's a mobile game, fast paced, super challenging action rpg, and able to be played in short-bursts. The short play sessions directly correlate to the islands, and the game saves itself every time you get back to your raft or anytime you start on an island. The player can't save or load game files himself, their actions are irreversible. To add more onto player choice and the weight of fragility in their situation, he has a maximum number of sons that can replace him.

The sons' initial stats vary, so you can get duds you can choose to dump if you can afford to try mating again, or you can get stuck with a weak son you can try to power up through equipment and totems. It's a brutal world out there, and getting a son without any upper body strength isn't going to help get your tribe across the sea. The cost of mating and adding more lives is steep though, and the currency used -- hearts and furs -- are also for competing for services like healing and training your tribe. When you leave your raft on an island, your health and skills are the only things keeping you alive, so there are some meaningful choices on how the player spends his meaty currency. If the hunter does die and has a son to replace him, he drops his equipment so it can be picked up, safety pending.

PW: Thorough gameplay/story mechanics like these are a pleasure to see invested in game design. And what I've seen in the current alpha build, I can tell it's coming along swimmingly. Can you share any plans for future projects? Where does Whalenought Studios go from here?

WHALENOUGHT: Thank you! The alpha testing has been a tremendous help and we've gotten a lot of feedback. We are taking a lot of suggestions we've gotten from testers and moving it into a beta stage in the coming week, we're just getting finished adding the last of the features we planned for. Looking back at the initial designs of the game, it's crazy how much got added in we didn't plan for, and how all the pipe-dream assets made their way in. We've been in the professional development world before starting the company, and know cutting features is a norm to make deadlines, so to get away with adding additional features beyond the initial scope is an amazing triumph, a testament to hungry creative working by themselves. Also the benefit of being self-publishing, our only deadline is the ones we make for ourselves to keep surviving.

Post Isle of Bxnes, which we're scheduling to release by the end of September, we're moving onto finishing the art and cross platforming optimization for Poop Factory, an action game we already programmed prior to Bxnes. During this time we'll be simultaneously revving up our Corona coding and story boards for our next large project, our flagship, the Traditions of Vol. With Isle of Bxnes, we've learned a lot of what were able to do on mobile and want to do in our future products and RPGs, and high fantasy more traditional table top RPG is the next desired step. More towards a larger world with more character depth, classic role-playing elements, and strategic gameplay. We believe the world could use (desperately needs?) more Infinity Engine-inspired games -- that's what we want to play more of, so that's the obvious and inevitable choice of what we'll aim toward next. Excited to release more info on that later next month!

PW: Awesome. Thanks so much for your time. Good luck wrapping up Isle of Bxnes.

We'll be in touch, I'm sure. Literally. Like, on a screen.

Snapback Slim Wallet Impressions & Review

Here we are, back to wallets. Another minimal, thin, elastic-binding money dumpster. The Snapback Slim. There are nearly as many wallet projects on Kickstarter1 as there are accessories for iOS devices. And this is probably a good thing. Look what Google Reader's death did to the RSS services market -- we have more options than you can add feeds to. But not everyone uses an RSS reader; everyone I know uses a wallet.

Snapback Slim wallet with blue elastic cash strap.

While I respect the mission for a slimmer, more minimal wallet (I did, after all, review Supr's Slim wallet), I was at first apprehensive with Nick Augeri's approach to the same market of minimized, "hardly-anything-there" design. He was kind enough to send me his wallet for early testing and impressions, and I happily gave it a try. After having spent more than half a year with Supr's Slim, I certainly have a similar product with which to compare.

Snapback Slim's Design

The Supr Slim was ordinarily designed (it's a stitched piece of eslastic with an "X" branded onto it), so it's welcome to see that the Snapback Slim has more panache. The Floridian creator calls it a "slim wallet [that] can handle your cards, cash and receipts", and as you can imagine, it'll hold all those items with the added benefit of separating them -- something the Slim and other cards-only wallets can't do. I know, it's like going backwards to go forwards with wallet design, but bear with me. From just looking at it, you'll notice the Snapback's biggest improvement in design over Supr's simple elastic body is the colored strap attached to its side for wrapping around the wallet itself (measuring 2.5cm in width against the entire wallet's 5cm x 8.5cm size). This, strangely enough, is exactly what I found the design of Supr's needed after a few months of use, especially after having seen the recently successful Kickstarter project for Capsule. And so I did actually modify it with a Field Notes rubber band, which separates my cash and creates friction for any wannabe Apollo Robbins pickpocket. While the Snapback Slim's money band doesn't offer any friction, it does add a useful feature to the political problem of separation between money and card. Its wide strap grips enough surface area to hold contents tightly, regardless of how many cards you have in the main hold. It even doubles as a connected wristband or loop (for a keychain or bag). This is fantastic.

Inside seam of the Supr Slim wallet.

Inside seam of the Snapback Slim wallet.

The only slight annoyance I have with the design of the Snapback Slim's design is the inseam of the elastic band. Whereas Supr slyly hid it by splitting and situating it in the middle of the body, Snackback Slim positioned it on its side. In loading the wallet with cards, the creator calls it a "safety tab," but I'd regard it as more of a misplaced stub. Once you have a couple cards inside the wallet it isn't much of a problem, although I have found its placement causes a bit of resistance extracting and depositing a card on the side that the safety tab rests. If anything, I recommend using the clean side to keep your most used card.

Side without safety tab seam. (5 cards inside.)

Side with "safety tab" seam. (5 cards inside.)

Initial Impressions in Daily Use

I've only just begun to use the Snapback Slim Wallet, so of course I'll update this review in a few months to weigh in on the longer term durability of its build, but as of now, the wallet's elastic material feels crisply taut, sturdily adhering to any number of cards you load into it. It also feels strong enough to reassure against any uncertainty regarding sewing quality. And the product is manufactured in the USA. Hurrah.

While material is important, my bigger concern with elastic-band wallets is the lack of reinforcement for stored items. While I haven't sat awkwardly or violently enough to irrevocably bend my cards, it's still a possibility with any of these kinds of wallets. If you wear it in your front pocket, of course, there are no worries about this (just this). The elastic used for this wallet seems durable, but I'm no materials expert. My other elastic wallet has lasted in perfectly good shape for over seven months, and still flexes perfectly with the number of items held -- the most negative aspect of slim, leather-bound wallets. Perhaps the only risk of bending or crippling your cards is if you only pack one or two in there -- with at least four or five, the wallet as a whole seems more than sturdy enough to ward against mishaps.

Using the additional colored band to store loose cash has been more than helpful. I only ever have a single bill or two at a time (until I break that twenty with a cup of coffee), and so my time with the Snapback Slim has mostly been with a $20 bill and a couple singles, all folded together into fourths. This method tucks the bills neatly under the colored band and they sit flush with the height of the wallet itself. It looks neato.

The Kickstarter Project

There are few things I appreciate about the way Nick Augeri set up his Kickstarter project for the Snapback Slim.

  1. Prototypes
  2. Detailed production schedule post-project success with risks and challenges
  3. Pricing and reward tiers are practical and efficient

Tracing the history of a product’s development helps put the final product into context. The creator shares how the wallet evolved from an iteration with a much smaller, secondary elastic band, to several versions of a thicker, wider one. It’s a good thing he went with wider, because the Field Notes rubberband I jerry-rigged on my other wallet is way too small to securely hold cash without it flopping about. It also appears that he had tested out different material lengths, likely testing the elasticity of having a different number of cards inside. With this kind of backstory, the Snapback Slim’s quality is reinforced to prospective investors.

Snapback Slim prototypes (from the Kickstarter page)

Likewise, providing a comprehensive post-project schedule of how he plans on handling production and delivery gauges the complexity of the product, the thought and resources behind manufacturers, and risks associated therein. There have been several Kickstarter projects that stumbled after enormously successful investment runs, and Nick Augeri acknowledges that he has established a close relationship with his manufacturer to assure a speedy run of the now-completed and tested product. I know Kickstarter requires a delivery date for submission of any project, so at least he’s kind enough to warn against a few weeks’ delay if indeed there is a higher quantity ordered than hedged against.

Finally, the pricing and reward tiers are straightforward. You’re investing in a product line, not a series of distractions (for both you and the creator). I’ve never been swayed to invest in a higher tier to spend an evening at a fancy dinner with the creator, or to wear a t-shirt that says I backed a project, or to don a few branded stickers on my notebook. I’m investing in your product because I want to see that product line successfully manufactured and sold, along with owning one myself. Snapback Slim’s sane four options for investment should be the standard moving forward.

Elasticity in the Year of Wallets

Does the Snapback Slim set itself apart? I won't hold back from comparing it to Supr's Slim wallet or the British elastic wallet, Flip, but I'll do so in a progressive way: the Snapback Slim evolves minimized wallet design with the addition of a functional colored strap, improving the thinnest wallet you can own. If that appeals to you, it's an obvious choice to invest in the project on Kickstarter. I wish the best for the Snapback Slim -- it'll round out the Year of Wallets quite well.

You can view and fund the Kickstarter project, or follow the company's updates on Twitter

  1. Okay, I actually counted. There are more iOS accessories, but there are over 90 wallets that are either currently running as projects or were successfully funded in the past year and a half.

Pret's American Grapefruit Juice: A Notable Review

Have I completely lost my mind? A review of a grapefruit juice from Pret a Manger, of all places? No. I haven't. Even the lowly, everyday juice deserves a moment in the spotlight. And today, that juice is Pret's American Grapefruit Juice, an all-natural, preservative-free celebration of summertime.

Freshly prepared (apparently) and freshly purchased: Pret's American Grapefruit Jucie

I've consistently stopped into Pret a few times a week since it opened at the base of our building complex last year. The coffee isn't half bad, the yogurts are great in the morning, and the lines are way more welcome than the intolerable ones at Starbucks next door. They also have a nearly monotone outfit of juices for purchase: honey tangerine juice, lemonade, orange juice, orange & pineapple juice, and, what we've come here for, grapefruit juice. When I say to the friendliest manager this side of your industry job fantasy, "just the juice, here", he says: "that'll be $3.30, please". This guy, whoever he is, runs an amazing check-out experience, always jumping in to ring folks when the other clerks are overwhelmed by a rush of customers. And he always thanks you, wishes you a good day, and welcomes you back the next.

So I've got this grapefruit juice in my hands, avoiding the outside world on a steamy 84-degree day, ready to march back upstairs and sit at my desk and type more stuff on the computer and do this and do that while trying to savor this delicate reminder of childhood under a warm, tender sun. And then I think about all those breakfasts and afternoon snacks where my mother prepared her two sons' grapefruit bowls the only way I'll ever know: halved with each half's fruit segments lightly propped out of their uterine cavities, membrane-free with a dash of powdered sugar.

Does Pret's grapefruit juice always send me down memory lane? Probably not. But shake that bottle well and you, too, will be tugged back to a cheery memory at least once. Few things other than a really good IPA could beat the strikingly tart and pulpy thirty-sip seranade of Pret's American Grapefruit Juice nirvana on a hot day (even if I wasn't ever outside). I know, it's 100% pure Florida grapefruit juice, so it's really just the product of a damn good juicing machine with a competent driver, but pure juice can be brilliantly rich, and in my mind, this one definitely fills a hole in my stomach.

Is Pret's masterpiece the juice-making apogee of all human sweat, blood, and agony? I can't say for certain, but I will admit it's a pretty good 430 mL plastic bottle of GFJ. Seeing as how it's 100% juice (and "nothing else"), pulp to juice ratio is the game to play here. There is a low-level of grapefruit pulp that gracefully clumps together at the bottom fifth of an unshaken bottle. Once shaken (note: shake carefully, the zip-tops have been known to weep sticky leakage from aggressive forearms), the pulp disperses evenly and stays put. If you like a little fruit flesh in your juice, you'll like this. If you despise anything floating around in your liquids, stay away. (Pret neglects to mention the presence of pulp anywhere on the bottle, an unfortunately poor and unfriendly design decision, so this is your warning, trepid buyer.) Regardless, the pulp isn't overwhelming, the tartness of the grapefruit feels like a 7 on a scale of 10, and the volume (14.5 fl oz if you didn't convert earlier) is just enough to hold you back until your next meal.

What have we learned today? Grapefruit juice is a good choice of beverage, especially in the summer, and especially as a stand-alone snack at mid-day. Pret's take on the classic (which, let me remind you, is just pure juice) is an overwhelmingly intelligent choice. You may wonder -- my, there are a lot of juices and beverages to choose from at 3:00pm on any given day, so why grapefruit? Besides it simply tasting better than other, lesser reincarnations of citrus fruits, grapefruit has gnarly benefits as a vessel for orally-taken drugs -- like alcohol. What? Yeah. Not only is the juice great for you (a delicious source of vitamin C, A, B complex, E, and K), but according to a Group of Canadian researchers, grapefruit juice interferes with an enzyme that "metabolizes many drugs, and toxins as well, into substances that are less potent or more easily excreted." So if you want to tastefully disguise a few shots of vodka or gin with that bottle of grapefruit juice, you'll likely get the funnies before 5:00.

Find your nearest Pret a Manger and enjoy.